Nobody would have dared suggest five years ago that Kosovo, a war-scarred state that declared independence only in 2008, would produce one of the most talented young football teams in Europe. During the 1990s, as tensions with the Serbian regime intensified, it was deemed too dangerous to play the sport in public. Now the team is unbeaten in 12 games, seemingly unable to stop scoring and playing with a maverick style that feels like a throwback to a bygone era.
Six of Kosovo’s top-flight teams can now use artificial pitches, and the level of the organisation is a far cry from the pre-FIFA days, when clubs in the Super League would pay players in cash. Where Kosovans used to play games in secret to avoid enemy Serbian forces as the risk of war grew, now their football team faces the world more proudly than ever.
The “Brazil of the Balkans” tag that has playfully followed them around no longer looks fanciful.
“I will tell England that Kosovo is not going to be easy,” Christian Eriksen said last Thursday after his Denmark side scraped a 2-2 friendly draw in Pristina.
Kosovo are the dark horse in England’s Euro 2020 qualifying group. Their 1-1 draw against the Bulgarians sets them off and running, but they were already just two games from making history. Should they beat Macedonia and then Georgia or Belarus in next March’s Nations League playoffs, Kosovo will qualify for the European Championship without need for the more conventional route, and one of modern football’s most remarkable stories will break improbable new ground.